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Anatomy of a Thanksgiving Turkey Giveaway

What it takes to deliver 10,000 birds to needy families.

Kelly Reid helps deliver 10,000 frozen turkeys across New York City. (Courtesy of City Harvest)

The Friday before Thanksgiving, Kelly Reid pulls up to the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger at 8:09 a.m., two minutes ahead of schedule. He quickly scans his manifest, pinned to a clipboard, to see what he’ll need to unload. Then he pulls on some heavy-duty work gloves, drops out of the cab of his 18-foot truck, and starts unpacking 20 cases of frozen turkeys.

The food pantry’s not open yet, but Lorraine Thompson is already waiting in a line that stretches past the building. Everyone in line is shuffling in place to stay warm. Thompson pulls a borrowed velour coat around her shoulders. Since she stopped smoking, she says, everything feels too tight.

She drove over from East New York to see what’s on offer today. Thompson receives federal Supplemental Security Income assistance, and cash is limited. To make Thanksgiving dinner for her husband, daughter, and grandson, she’s been assembling ingredients piecemeal—a can of this from one pantry, a box of that from another. “If there’s a bag of potatoes, I can make a meal from it,” she tells me. “Whatever it is, I’m grateful for it.”

City Harvest’s massive food rescue facility is a loading point for food moving through pantries and shelters throughout the year. (Courtesy of City Harvest)

Farmers might be busiest toward the dog days of summer, as crops ripen and beg to be plucked, washed, packed, and sold. But as the air turns chilly, hunger relief organizations double down on feeding needy families during the holiday season. Last Thanksgiving, the Bowery Mission served 450 pies and 250 gallons of gravy. This time of year, “things are really swinging,” says Jim Dunne, the of director warehouse operations at City Harvest, a nonprofit that rescues and redistributes food across New York.

During the holiday season, volunteers stream into City Harvest’s 45,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City to pack apples, sweet potatoes, canned corn, and peas into boxes. The organization also shuffles 10,000 turkeys across the boroughs, ferried by drivers including Reid.

Getting those goods to shelters and pantries requires a ballet of poultry logistics. From farms in the Midwest, the birds head to distributors up and down the East Coast. City Harvest’s fleet of 22 trucks fan them out to more than 200 agencies in all five boroughs. To see how this complicated choreography comes together, I trailed Reid on one of his drop-off routes.

Cases of frozen turkeys unloaded from Reid’s truck. (Jessica Hester/CityLab)

The warehouse opens at 3 a.m. By 6 a.m., cars are already choking nearby streets. Yellow letters flash on a sign before the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge: “Gridlock Alert: Use Mass Transit.” That’s not possible when you’ve got thousands of turkeys in tow.

This particular facility is at a junction of expressways and tunnels that afford access to most boroughs; by 7:30 a.m., the outbound trucks are on the road. During the holiday season, the company also taps temp drivers to get more goods moving through the city’s paved arteries.

When we hop in his truck, Reid checks his schematic, which gives the name, address, and contact information for each of the 12 stops he’ll make. (Today, it’s marked “Brooklyn Turkey Delivery.”) He logs on to a system so that the dispatch office can keep tabs on him. The manifest gives delivery windows, but it’s not always possible to stick to them. He calls someone at the dispatch office—can they give his first stop a heads up that he’s running early?

Kelly Reid checks his manifest outside a food pantry in Brooklyn. (Jessica Hester/CityLab)

Each stop might be a mile or so apart, plotted out with the aim of eventually bringing the driver back to where he started. On a given shift, Reid may spend eight hours or more behind the wheel. To pass the time, he listens to talk radio—he especially likes the Steve Harvey morning show, but also turns the dial to Geraldo or Rush Limbaugh. (“I love to hear them rant.”) Here’s what his path looked like on Friday:

The first stop is about 4.8 miles from the warehouse; the second is about a mile from there. But when Reid calls to say he’s on his way, no one answers. He leaves a voicemail. “I got your turkeys on board,” he says. We drive past St. John’s Bread & Life, which is running a busy breakfast service.

We stop a little farther down the block, at South Road Tabernacle and meet Douglas Pringle—“like the chip”—the director of operations. Last year, a grant from the United Way enabled the pantry to buy 260 turkeys to hand out. Pringle says that many of the people who come by for free meals are homeless or jump from shelter to shelter; they don’t have access to the facilities to cook a Thanksgiving meal. He’s setting the turkeys aside for single mothers or large families. “You never know when someone’s in need,” Pringle says.

Food insecurity is a problem nationwide: Even after the recession, consistent access to healthy food has lagged behind other markers of economic recovery, and affects every county in the U.S.

Reid’s route is an interesting case study. His path wends through Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood that is both gentrifying and increasingly hungry. Using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Census, researchers at the Food Bank for New York City recently mapped the meal gap across the boroughs. (Those are the “missing” meals that couldn’t be purchased due to inadequate household resources.) In Brooklyn, the meal gap increased by 16.5 percent between 2009 and 2014. Estimated food costs in the area swung up by nearly 23 percent over the same period. The gap translates to about 13 million meals.

The meal gap is especially pronounced in clusters around the Bronx and Brooklyn, where Reid’s route goes. (Food Bank for New York City)

Writing in The New York Times, Gina Belafonte noted that the map of the meal gap suggested a relationship between gentrification and poverty. Those “missing” meals are especially likely to be concentrated in areas with pockets of rising inequality, or neighborhoods where displaced residents look to put down roots when they’ve been priced out of their previous areas, Belafonte wrote. Bed-Stuy is one of those neighborhoods, where poverty lives alongside gutted-and-renovated brownstones—and as the cost of rent has swerved skyward, it became less feasible for residents to stretch their money to pay for meals.

Hunger tends to snap into people’s minds as they prepare for fall and winter feasts: The vast majority of financial donations pour in during the last three months of the year, says Ross Fraser, the director of media relations for the national organization Feeding America. That trend holds true across the country: At the Greater Chicago Food Depository, volunteer sessions are nearly booked up through the end of December; to capitalize on year-end giving, Gleaners Community Food Bank in Detroit hosts blitzes with matching funds supplied by donors.

But each season presents its own problems. In the summer, kids who typically rely on school lunch programs may struggle to find alternatives; in the winter, families with strapped budgets shoulder the added burden of heat bills. A surge in volunteer interest means that pantries and shelters can collect and box a glut of shelf-stable food in a short time, but “we want to make sure that people understand that this is a year-round issue, and it’s something that we’re continually responding to,” says Paul Morello, who manages public relations for the Greater Chicago Food Depository. “In March, hunger will still exist.” In any given week, Fraser tells me, more than 5 million people across the country will show up to a hunger relief organization for help.

For now, though, Reid is hauling poultry. I leave him at Faith Assembles of God, whose door is guarded by a carved eagle, wings spread wide. As I walk to the train, I hear Reid call out to a man who props open the door to help cart the birds inside. “I’m the turkey guy,” Reid says.

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.